USA faces loaded knockout bracket if and when it advances to Round of 16

The United States‘ section in a potential Women’s World Cup knockout bracket is shaping up as a murderers’ row — and there’s nothing the Americans can do about it.

Let’s be clear: the first call to action for USA fans is to stay focused on the team’s final game in Group E, a showdown with Portugal where defeat could lead to an unthinkable early plane ride home (coverage begins at 1:00 a.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app).

However, when a program has found as much success as the USWNT, which is bidding for its third straight title, it is only natural to glance ahead and see what is hopefully coming.

Because the reigning champion doesn’t do fear, we won’t call it scary. But the side of the draw that both the Group E winner and the runner-up is destined to land in is stacked with the most in-form teams in the tournament and some genuine heavyweights.

Japan came into the competition with question marks, but those have been emphatically replaced with exclamation points following the 2011 champion’s remarkable surge through the group stage.

A team that supposedly lacked a high-quality forward struck 11 unanswered goals across three games, saving the best for last by thrashing Spain 4-0 on Monday. As for that dearth of scoring power? Try telling that to Hinata Miyazawa, who has hit the target four times since the start of the World Cup.

Despite that defeat, Spain remains a team no one will relish facing, and the USWNT still has painful memories of losing to a team mostly composed of Spain’s reserves last October, an outcome that handed it consecutive defeats for the first time in five years. Until Monday, the European side was top of the FOX Sports Women’s World Cup power rankings and is headed by midfield creators Alexia Putellas and Aitana Bonmati.

Add in the historically prolific USA and the 2019 finalist the Netherlands, and the top part of the bracket already looks fearsome. But why stop there?

Will the United States beat Portugal?

Sweden is the world No. 3, the Tokyo Olympic finalist and walloped a usually consistent Italy squad in its second game. Facing the stylish and organized Swedes in the Round of 16 is the prize, or perhaps punishment, for whoever finishes second in Group E out of the Americans and the Dutch.

Switzerland is a no-nonsense group that refused to concede a single goal on its way to winning Group A. Norway is a star-packed roster that looked to be in turmoil but turned things around with a 6-0 rout of the Philippines, and now has Carolina Graham Hansen motivated and surging and ace forward Ada Hegerberg likely to return from injury.

The remaining spot might be the only weaker link. The Group E winner will meet the Group G runner-up, which seems set to come down to a duel between Italy and South Africa, who meet each other in Wellington (coverage begins Wednesday at 1:00 a.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app).

Gone are the days when the USWNT could cruise through its group, have a nice little tune-up to start the knockout round, and then get down to real business. Real pressure points abound. Such is the nature of the top part of this year’s bracket.

This is not to disparage the bottom half, which has some spice of its own but has been disrupted by some shock results and mixed form of its leading practitioners.

Depending on the results, England, for example, could land itself a path that would mean a Round of 16 matchup with Nigeria, followed by the winner of Colombia and Jamaica.

Colombia has looked outstanding behind the brilliance of teenage phenom Linda Caicedo, and every team to have reached this point deserves their place. It goes without saying that such a route would be more favorable than any that the top half has to offer.

Even England themselves, one of the genuine favorites, have looked muted, managing only a pair of 1-0 and seeing Keira Walsh suffer a concerning injury.

Olympic champion Canada has already been knocked out, Brazil is in danger of joining them, host nation Australia is still awaiting Sam Kerr’s full return, while Germany has looked decidedly shaky.

“There is only one thing in mind going into this tournament,” USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski told reporters before the tournament. “We are going to … our goal is to win the World Cup. No question about it.”

That remains the goal, and there is no reason for it to change. But the level of difficulty just got amped up, and the Americans have a gauntlet in front of them if they are to meet a familiar standard of success.

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletter.

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